It’s a real relegation scrap on Saturday as Stoke take on Gareth Southgate’s under-pressure Middlesbrough side…
Kick-Off: Saturday, March 21, 15:00 (local time). Britannia Stadium, Stoke.
Stoke City are fighting for their Premier League lives and at present they are sitting inside the drop-zone after last week’s loss to Everton. If they can survive this will have been a season of great success for Tony Pulis’ men, but they do know that whatever happens, they have given a decent account of themselves.
If the Potters are to stay up, most of their work will have been done at the Britannia Stadium. The Potters have earned 25 of their 29 league points in front of their home fans and are yet to pick up a victory on the road this season.
Pulis therefore knows that a home game against Middlesbrough, one of just two sides sitting below them in the Premier League, is a must-win clash. However, in his pre-match comments, caution was the order of the day.
"Middlesbrough have top players and if we're not on it, they will hurt us,” he said at his press conference.
“[Boro boss] Gareth Southgate has got a good chairman that understands that you need to give people time. Steve Gibson has been very patient and invested a lot of money in the club, and it's very similar to what's happened at Stoke City.
"I have tremendous respect for Gareth, but on Saturday there's only one team I want to win and that's us."
It should be an excellent atmosphere on Saturday and Stoke will have vocal backing, but the pressure is right on them to deliver now, with just nine matches until the season’s end.
Middlesbrough and their manager, Gareth Southgate, are under big pressure to turn the club’s fortunes around at present.
After two stable seasons in mid-table, they were expected to push on and make big strides this season, but instead they have been fighting against relegation.
Defeat to Stoke City on Saturday would make them one of the big favourites to drop out of the Premier League, which would be deemed unacceptable by the club’s fans.
Southgate has no further distractions – his team are out of the FA Cup and he has been assured that his own position is not under immediate threat at the Riverside Stadium following assurances from the club’s hierarchy.
They now have nine games to save their season and the clock is certainly ticking in the north East.
Speaking to the press before the game, Southgate highlighted how important it was for his key players such as Stewart Downing to step up and make a difference.
"He [Downing] is a current England international, so it has a big impact," said Southgate.
"He doesn't realise how big an impact what he says and does has on the rest of them, the supporters, everything.
"His performances over the next few weeks can play a huge part for us."
If the likes of Downing, Alfonso Alves and Marlon King do not start stepping up to the plate, Boro are likely to find themselves in the Championship next season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Stoke City – James Beattie
Former Everton striker James Beattie has scored five goals in eight matches for Stoke City since signing for the club and his goals could be the difference between Premier League survival and relegation to the Championship. So far, the Englishman is looking like a bargain buy at £3.5 million and if he can continue his recent goal-scoring run, he will have been priceless to Tony Pulis’ side.
Middlesbrough – Stewart Downing
With their striker’s mis-firing, Middlesbrough now need key players like Stewart Downing to start making significant contributions in all areas of the pitch. Despite requesting a transfer in January, Downing is determined not to see his local side suffer relegation, and knows this is a crucial fixture for his side.
Mar 14 Everton 3-1 Stoke City (Premier League)
Mar 04 Stoke City 2-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)
Mar 01 Aston Villa 2-2 Stoke City (Premier League)
Feb 21 Stoke City 2-2 Portsmouth (Premier League)
Feb 07 Sunderland 2-0 Stoke City (Premier League)
Mar 14 Middlesbrough 1-1 Portsmouth (Premier League)
Mar 08 Everton 2-1 Middlesbrough (FA Cup)
Mar 04 Tottenham 4-0 Middlesbrough (Premier League)
Feb 28 Middlesbrough 2-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 25 Middlesbrough 2-0 West Ham (FA Cup)
Stoke City winger Matthew Etherington faces a fitness test on his ankle injury but is expected to be fit.
Ricardo Fuller's shoulder is still not fully healed after his dislocation, but the striker is set to be in the match-day squad.
Previous XI (2-1 Home V Middlesbrough): Sorensen, Wilkinson, Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Lawrence, Whelan, Diao, Delap, Beattie, Sidibe.
Middlesbrough midfielder Matthew Bates is out through suspension after his needless sending of at home to Portsmouth last weekend.
Captain Emanuel Pogatetz is rated as doubtful with a knee injury.
Previous XI (1-1 Home V Portsmouth): Jones, McMahon, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz, Aliadiere, Arca, Bates, Downing, Tuncay, King.
Stoke City are very strong at home, but still find themselves in the relegation places. If they do not win here, many will start to believe that their time in the Premier League is running out.
Middlesbrough have been under pressure for most of the season, but still find themselves deep in the mire. This, a clash against key relegation rivals, is a game they cannot afford to lose, but they have to start scoring goals fast.
For me this will be a tense affair, and both sides may have to settle for a share of the spoils, which would not be a big help to either.
Stoke City 1-1 Middlesbrough
Chris Myson, Goal.com